Algae Biofuel and Other Sustainable Energy Sources – Magoda – Manufacturing America

While algae is often considered a nuisance that forms inside aquariums, this organism has proven to be very useful for energy production. Algae is actually a collection of plants that includes single-celled organisms, kale, and various varieties of algae.

Algae energy comes from the natural oils produced by photosynthesis. This oil is converted into algae biofuel which can then power a variety of things including commuter vehicles, planes and trains. The hope is that this type of biofuel can not only become sustainable through open pond farms, but also that biofuels can one day replace fossil fuels entirely.

Is algae fuel the only biofuel?

Current biofuel solutions include corn and ethanol. In some cases, these options are blended with traditional petroleum-based gasoline, but some engines can run on biofuels only. Although these technologies are cleaner than fossil fuels, engines intended for this type of use alone are still being researched and tested. They are not considered commercially viable, and even if they were, retrofitting existing vehicles that use an internal combustion engine or similar would be problematic.

Credit: IGV Biotech

Replacing all the world’s engines with new versions that run solely on biofuel is an endeavor that faces the same challenges as converting to electricity. While this is possible, the cost involved as well as the time required to complete the conversion would be astronomical and unreasonable unless the conversion took place over many years and in segments. Additionally, electric vehicle technology itself is set to become cost-effective, and challenges still exist around batteries and charging infrastructure.

Algae farm technology and fuel production

In order to harvest the large amounts of algae fuel needed to make processing viable, algae farms are often used to grow specific species of this plant. To contribute to this effort, companies like ExxonMobil went so far as to genetically sequence certain strains of algae to create large-scale farms.

In addition, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was study open pond culture to determine if factors such as water requirements, energy consumption and biomass yields can make algae farms viable. NREL has also conducted other studies on the use of Combined Algae Treatment (CAP) methods which have produced promising results.

One of the interesting things about growing algae for fuel on a farm is that wastewater can be a potential source for cultivation fuel-producing algae. The process involves the introduction of carbon dioxide and saline solution into the water under certain conditions. Using wastewater can mean less energy is used to produce the algae that will then produce biofuel, and it could be a cleaner way to produce fuels compared to existing fossil fuel and coal technologies.

Why don’t we get more biodiesel from algae?

Although the use of algae in energy production can have a considerable impact, there are certain drawbacks and challenges that have prevented this technology from being widely adopted. The amount of energy required to grow algae is currently greater than that required to produce other sources of biofuels such as corn. Although algae is considered a good source of biofuel, alternatives currently offer a more efficient experience.

Additionally, some algae cultivation methods require the use of phosphorus as a fertilizer. This is because natural algae do not naturally grow in large enough quantities to be grown on the scale needed for agriculture. Since phosphorus is needed in these situations, it is one more limited resource that will need to be included in researchers’ efficiency comparisons.

Credit: Honeywell

Finally, although open pond culture tends to provide the best growth results, algae in these media require an environment in which ambient temperature, water temperature, and other variables are tightly controlled. This may mean that agricultural facilities will need additional energy to produce algae in large enough quantities to produce an efficient biofuel.

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